Views of the News, Metropolitan and Otherwise

PETER A. JAY

January 26, 1992|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- This is space that until last week belonged to Pat Furgurson, who has retired from newspaper work, and the trepidation I feel upon setting out to fill it isn't much mitigated by the sense that I've been here before.

The last time I started filling in for Pat was 16 years ago, when he gave up his thrice-weekly editorial-page column to take over The Sun's Washington bureau. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that following Pat might be a risky business, much as it was for third basemen trying to follow Brooks Robinson.

For not only did Pat have a great reporter's instincts and judgment, long experience covering major stories around the world, and a keen sense of The Sun's and its readers' needs, but he managed to write with real style and without a trace of arrogance. Young writers, and not-so-young ones as well, couldn't find a much better model to emulate, even though the effort is likely to prove humbling.

Emulation isn't the same as duplication, of course, and while anyone producing a newspaper column wouldn't ever go wrong by trying to work up to the professional standards of a Pat Furgurson, it would be foolish and probably disastrous to try to imitate the personal viewpoint that gave his commentary its character. I didn't try that in 1976, and won't now.

Young reporters have been told for generations that they need to be "objective" in their coverage, but it has never been very clear -- to me, anyway -- what that means. Objectivity is often used to mean detachment, and while it's easy enough for a reporter to be detached in covering a zoning hearing in a county he had never heard of two years ago, it's just about impossible in dealing with more universal issues.

Abortion is a good example. It's hard to imagine that there are many thoughtful people, reporters included, without strong opinions on this subject. Objectivity is really out of the question here. What a conscientious reporter does, in covering abortion issues, is to try very hard to be fair.

Editors and publishers have an additional responsibility, not always easy to carry out. They need to see that the people who comprise their news and editorial staffs aren't a collection of cultural or ideological clones.

There's been a lot of progress in this regard in the more than 25 years I've been working for newspapers. The better papers, including The Sun, used to hire, almost exclusively, young white men from elite universities. The New York Times went through a period in which it chose an intern every year for its Washington bureau who had not only attended Harvard, but who as an undergraduate had resided in Eliot House.

There were a few variations; some papers' hiring practices were especially friendly to Southerners, and some were less than friendly to Jews. But generally, newsrooms at major papers did not represent much of a cross-section of the diverse readerships they served. The demographic mix is much richer today, thanks to the influx of a great many women and minority journalists.

With ever-fewer general-circulation newspapers available, the people making the key decisions in this business recognize that the process of diversification, of bringing in people not only of different skin color but also of different views and philosophy, has to continue. But this isn't like making soup by tossing in a dab of this and a smidgeon of that; putting together a staff that can attract new readers without simultaneously driving away old ones can be pretty tricky.

Years ago, as a Marylander working for the Washington Post, I used to envy friends who worked for The Sun. (Many of those very friends, and certainly most of my Post colleagues, thought I was nuts.) The pay at The Sun was less and the circulation smaller, but the paper, I thought, had a sense of the state and a relationship with its readers that was special and unusual.

Some of that's been lost, I think, as both the state and the paper have undergone some wrenching changes. In the interest of both readers and writers, I hope some of it can be regained.

One of the accomplishments of The Sun editorially in earlier days, it seemed to me, was that it managed to speak not only to and for Baltimore, but also to and for the counties beyond. To be sure, what might be called the metropolitan perspective usually prevailed, and sometimes irritated those who viewed Baltimore with suspicion, but still the paper's voice was a bona fide Maryland one.

What I'd like to provide here on occasion, in Pat Furgurson's old space, is a non-metropolitan Maryland perspective. This doesn't necessarily mean an anti-urban or anti-Baltimore view, or a view you couldn't find held by plenty of city residents of varying ages and races. But it is likely to mean a view somewhat different from that being espoused by City Hall, or the governor's office, or even the page opposite this one.

I'd never argue that the issues confronting the state can be seen any more clearly from Havre de Grace (or Friendsville, or Thurmont, or Mardela Springs) than from Baltimore, but they do frequently look different from there. It's a difference worth getting into the pages of Maryland's major newspaper from time to time.

0 Peter Jay's column appears here each Sunday.

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